Publisher blocks access to ebooks; students, faculty scramble

At George Washington University this fall, 269 students enrolled in a geography course were due to have free access to their textbook, An Introduction to Human-Environmental Geography: Local Dynamics and Global Processes, via a link on the course’s Blackboard site. But when many clicked the link, the book wasn’t available.

The book’s editor, Wiley, had withdrawn the book, along with more than 1,300 other e-books, from ProQuest Academic Complete, a large multidisciplinary e-book collection to which the university had a paid subscription. The change went into effect on the last day of August, just before fall classes began. As a result, librarians and faculty members across the United States and beyond have struggled to find alternative textbook options for their students.

Librarians and professors said the decision would have a direct, negative impact on students’ ability to afford college and access study materials.

“We condemn Wiley’s lack of consultation with libraries, the suddenness of this move and the timing which has caused significant disruption at the start of the new academic year,” read a statement from a group of Irish librarians. “Libraries have had to make time-consuming efforts to urgently contact faculty, change reading list collections, find alternatives, obtain pricing information and explore new procurement options, all at a time when we are new students settling in , should orientate the first normal academic year after an extremely difficult period during the pandemic.”

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George Washington faculty and staff have had similar experiences. According to Geneva Henry, the university’s dean of libraries and academic innovation, ProQuest informed the library over the summer that the geography book and other books would no longer be available as e-books. However, this announcement fell short as many trainers had already scheduled their courses for the spring without expecting to revise their curricula. Few expected the book to be removed from the library’s e-book collection at short notice.

“Wiley appears to have aimed to remove these titles in a shared subscription package that has been heavily used,” a George Washington website said about the news.

When a publisher like Wiley removes a title from ProQuest’s e-book collection, ProQuest typically offers libraries an opportunity to purchase the e-book. However, that option isn’t possible for textbooks like the one George Washington’s geography students needed because Wiley doesn’t sell textbooks—printed or digital—to libraries.

“Textbooks are one area where we see a lot of predatory behavior from publishers because they know they have students hooked,” Henry said. “Students must have the textbook.”

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The George Washington Library has since located and placed a printed copy of the book in reserve for the 269 students to borrow. Alternatively, individual students can purchase their own printed book (for $106.95 from the publisher’s website or another local bookseller) or an e-book (for $43 from the publisher’s website). At the time of publication, pre-owned copies of the title were also available for $19.99.

In addition to increasing student spending on books, Wiley’s move will also likely impede access. When the geography book was part of the e-book collection, all 269 George Washington students could have used it at the same time, say the night before a big exam, and all could have done so from anywhere they had internet access . That’s because ProQuest’s Academic Complete offers unlimited multi-user access to books in the collection.

Wiley’s removal of more than 1,300 books, many of which are in high demand, “is not fair,” said Steven Bell, associate librarian at Temple University. “Some students have the luxury of coming to the library and reading a book for two hours. Other students don’t have that time in their lives. They’re not on campus or primarily learning online.”

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Wiley declined to respond to questions, though Ed Colby, Wiley’s senior manager of global communications, provided a brief statement in an email.

“Wiley is working to provide solutions to customers who have experienced inconveniences as a result of the transition,” the emailed statement said, without detailing the company’s efforts to help those affected. The statement also didn’t explain why the company made the decision.

Wiley added 1,380 e-books to the ProQuest bundle in June before withdrawing the 1,380 books in question in August, the statement said. It did not provide insight into the demand for the withdrawn books versus the demand for the added books.

“It’s challenging to work with a vendor that doesn’t share our values,” said Henry. “An important part of inclusion is affordability. Colleges aren’t cheap – even the cheapest colleges aren’t cheap. When you add in the cost of the learning materials, you impact students’ ability to pursue their true interests, and you really begin to create an environment where you have and don’t have.”